The Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund: a ‘lack-of-Trust’ Fund for Afghanistan?
by Jonathan Goodhand and Jawed Ludin May 2003

In the last issue of Humanitarian Exchange (number 21), Valéry Ridde argued that the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) will (1) sideline NGOs; (2) complicate coordination mechanisms; and (3) lead to the privatisation of health systems. Alternatives to the ARTF are not suggested.

While in our view the article is right to point out the potential pitfalls of the ARTF, it shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the mechanism – in fact, the principle of a central trust fund which all donors support and subscribe to is a good one. It is essential (though possibly too late) to avoid the aid ‘free for all’ that has characterised other high-profile emergencies in recent years. The key issue in our view is not whether there should be a trust fund, but what kind of a trust fund it should be, who controls it and in whose interests. Potentially, such a mechanism could help strengthen and legitimise an embryonic government, enabling it to lead and direct the reconstruction effort.

Ridde’s article implies that continuing with ‘business as usual’ is preferable. This conclusion is based upon a questionable reading of past lessons in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is also symptomatic of a lack of trust between various aid actors in Afghanistan – something which has a long history and is likely to impede future reconstruction efforts.

To take the author’s key arguments in turn. First, to say that the ARTF will complicate aid coordination is rather disingenuous since NGOs have had up to five competing coordinating mechanisms for at least a decade. Adding another will indeed complicate things if no attempt is made to rationalise current arrangements. One of the lessons from the Strategic Framework process is that top-down, centralised, managerial approaches do not work in a fast-changing and complex environment.

However, this does not obviate the need for a more coordinated and rational division of labour. NGOs have been able to go it alone for the last two decades because they have not had to work with (and be coordinated by) a central state. Consequently, the aid system has always been a foreign-dominated system, with little Afghan voice and ownership. The ARTF has the potential to enhance coordination and bring coherence to aid efforts around an Afghan-owned reconstruction agenda.

The author rightly points to the dangers of ‘neo-colonialism’ and the aid effort so far has hardly been the ‘light footprint’ (more of a heavy jackboot) that Brahimi promised. But blaming this on the ATRF is wrong – the same charges of neo-colonialism can be made both in Mozambique, where NGOs had a free hand, and in East Timor, where there was a top-down, UN-dominated structure. The key issue is therefore one of ownership and local control. The current fragmented aid system in Afghanistan is likely to prevent this from developing.

Second, the author is concerned that the ATRF will sideline NGOs. Over the last two decades, international and Afghan NGOs have played a primary role in responding to humanitarian needs and providing basic services in Afghanistan. NGOs have also been important in supporting and training a cadre of educated and committed Afghans who might otherwise have left the region; at least three ministers in the current government come from NGO backgrounds. NGOs are likely to be central to reconstruction efforts in the future, and for the time being have greater operational capacity than any other delivery mechanism. However, the author perhaps champions the role of NGOs too uncritically, and takes an ‘NGO-centric’ view of the ‘post-conflict challenge’ in Afghanistan. Reconstruction efforts need to be based upon a more realistic assessment of NGOs’ past performance and future role in reconstruction. Although their role will remain important – particularly with respect to the continuing need for humanitarian aid – they will also need to accept that being ‘sidelined’ is a positive development if this means that the reconstruction agenda is being led by a legitimate Afghan government. This will mean that NGOs will need to change their outlook. Will they be prepared to relinquish some of their sovereignty and profile? Will they engage with the government (at all levels) rather than attempting to go it alone? Will they make the shift from direct intervention to capacity-building? The task of ‘rebuilding a country’ should not simply be farmed out to NGOs.

Third, the author cites the ‘danger’ of privatising health care. In a sense, the Afghan health system is already one of the most ‘privatised’ in the world – two decades of war and Taliban ‘downsizing’ have meant that government services are skeletal at best. Afghan families rely on a combination of traditional remedies, NGOs and private clinics for health services. To talk of a state-sponsored national health service funded through tax revenues is, for the foreseeable future, as much a donor fantasy as the idea of a liberal, democratic enabling state in Afghanistan. This argument does, however, highlight a more serious point regarding the kinds of policy prescriptions that are likely to emerge from the World Bank. Tensions are already beginning over whether Afghanistan should, for instance, accept loans for road-building, rather than grants. Experience from other ‘post-conflict’ settings suggests that the standard package of neo-liberal policies is likely to exacerbate structural tensions and increase the risk of renewed conflict.

Returning to the ARTF, we recognise that, although the concept is a good one, there will inevitably be pitfalls associated with the way it is implemented in practice. How to strike a balance between developing capacity at the centre with the imperative for quick delivery in the provinces? How to ensure that donors follow through on their aid pledges? How can donor rhetoric about putting the Afghan people in the ‘driving seat’ be translated into meaningful ownership and control over aid strategies and practice? NGOs can play an important role in influencing how the ‘rules of the game’ are played out, but they are no longer the only game in town. They are likely to be more influential if they recognise the need to engage and adapt. While pinpointing weaknesses is in order, to rule out what could potentially be a constructive initiative is wrong. In the context of a chronic aid deficit in Afghanistan (to which Ridde also alludes), it is a priority that a mechanism is put in place that encourages sustained donor commitment, enables the Afghan government to lead the reconstruction agenda and brings a level of coherence and transparency to a historically ‘anarchic’ aid scene.


Jonathan Goodhand is a Lecturer in the Development Studies Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London University. He has conducted research for ODI on the political economy of the Afghan conflict. Jawed Ludinis an Afghan aid worker with the British Overseas NGOs for Development (BOND). He is a co-author of Working with Conflict: Strategies and Skills for Action (London: Zed Books, 2000).

Valéry Ridde’s article, ‘Why a Trust Fund Won’t Work in Afghanistan’, is on the HPN website at